The protection of older young people, particularly from the ages 16 to 18, can be overlooked. One serious case review of the suicide of a 16-year-old girl highlights the issues involved, explains Jenni Whitehead

Newcastle’s Safeguarding Children Board has recently published a serious case review in respect of a 16-year-old girl. To review the death of a young person of this age is an unusual step and this particular review highlights some of the dilemmas faced by professionals in respect of teenagers who are not quite old enough to be of concern to adult services. Child protection law defines a child as a person up to the age of 18 but there seems to be increasing difficulty in recognising the teenager as in need of child protection. Newcastle’s review calls on all services to review the present level of services available to this age group.

Serious case reviews
Safeguarding boards are expected to consider carrying out a serious case review if the following criteria exist:

  • A child dies, and abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor in the death.
  • A child sustains a potentially life-threatening injury or serious and permanent impairment of health and development through abuse or neglect.
  • A child has been subjected to particularly serious sexual abuse.
  • A parent has been murdered and a homicide review is being initiated.
  • A child has been killed by a parent with a mental illness.
  • A case gives rise to concerns about inter-agency working to protect children from harm.

The purpose of serious case reviews is to consider whether there are other children at risk of harm who require safeguarding (eg siblings, or other children in an institution where abuse is alleged). Thereafter, organisations should consider whether there are any lessons to be learned about the ways in which they work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

Serious Case Review in respect of ‘R’
The Newcastle case describes a young person who had a troubled life: a difficult first few years living with domestic violence between her parents, moving to live with her aunt and then from leaving school, a series of moves and a rapid deterioration in the two years preceding her death.

R came to the attention of numerous agencies, including Youth Off The Streets (YOTS), Connexions, children’s social care, police, drug and alcohol teams and various health services. R’s offending behaviour started as early as 10 years old with minor offences and escalated to more serious offending, including assault, drinking offences and the use of class A drugs.

At the time of R’s death she was living near her mother and was tagged and under curfew by order of Newcastle Crown Court. She had been worried about being charged by the police for being involved in the stabbing of another young person but had been told that the charges had been dropped. The evening before her death, R had been at her mother’s party. Shortly before midnight she was found unconscious and despite resuscitation attempts she died.

In the opening passages of the report, the review committee acknowledges that while their task was to look at the events leading up to R’s death in the last two years of her life, the root causes of R’s self-harm and deteriorating situation lay in her early, formative years. The report highlights a number of examples of good practice but also makes recommendations for improving services to young people in this age group.

Each of the agencies involved with R carried out an internal review and made recommendations for improving their internal systems, and the review overview report points out that many of these have already been addressed. However, the review panel reports that some of the issues go well beyond the remit of the Safeguarding Children Board:

‘Young persons aged 16 and 17 are in a legislative shadowland where statutory provisions can be conflicting or inconsistent; where a person is legally a “child” with regard to the Children Acts yet has a different balance of rights and responsibilities compared with younger children; and where “adult” orientated services and legislation may or may not support their needs. For most young people this will never be an issue, but tragic cases such as this one serve to highlight that it is precisely those youngsters with the highest needs and the greatest risk to themselves whose care may be made more difficult by the inconsistencies in current statutory provisions.’

Lessons to be learned from R’s case
The lessons to be learned include the importance and value of the following:

  • A full history and understanding of how early experiences impact on an individual, and information-sharing among professionals, is a prerequisite of the successful identification of risks.
  • Clarity as to the roles of professionals, including the value of those not directly involved, in offering a strategic oversight – for example, the designated nurse for child protection or a named social worker with a clear child-protection perspective.
  • Any strategic approach needs to be underpinned by appropriate management support.
  • When working with high-risk groups there is a need to protect against desensitisation.
  • A recognition and understanding of all risks is essential, to avoid over-concentration on a single issue, however pivotal it may appear.
  • A recognition that the management of complex cases can move between the guidance for vulnerable young people, and that used in child protection cases.
  • That there is value in reappraising existing guidance to allow reconsideration of planned action, in response to escalating risks.
  • It can be appropriate to consider the use of legal orders to address risk and seek assessments from professionals not already involved.
  • Protocol between children’s social care and YOTS to be reviewed and to include vulnerable young people who are not looked after or subject to a child protection plan.

Implications for working with older young people

This review is significant in that it deals with the difficulties faced by professionals who work with older young people. I am sure most secondary teachers can identify young people who appear to be on an unstoppable path of self-destruction, and can recognise the problems addressed in R’s case: the 16-year-old who is given certain rights by law, but seems incapable of exercising them in a self-protective manner. The report states:

‘Primarily, if a more holistic or strategic approach had been taken it may have allowed a more positive outcome. It may be that R’s “adult risk taking” coloured the approach of professionals as to when they should have been directive, and lessened the realisation she was a child, who at times needed to be protected from herself.’

The good practice highlighted in the review includes:

  • close working relationships between agencies that have most contact with the young person
  • determination on the part of single agencies to ensure that the young person is seen as a child in respect of their need for protection
  • not giving up on young people despite the difficulties they present
  • the continuous attempt to secure proper safe accommodation for young people.

This report looks at the death of one young person but the lessons to be learned from it apply to all professionals working with young people. It is essential that we continue to recognise that child protection procedures apply to young people up to the age of 18; and that being 16 does not necessarily mean that a young person can be viewed as able to look after themselves.

If your school has experienced difficulties in making other agencies listen and accept referrals for young people in this age group, contact your LA-designated child protection officer and ask them to take the issue up with the Safeguarding Board.

Ask about local protocols about working with vulnerable young people aged 16 to 18.

Make contact with other local agencies and voluntary groups to find out what they offer.

Above all, don’t give up on them!

We are unable to publish reader comments about individual child protection concerns on this website. If you are worried about a child please call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Alternatively you can contact your Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) through your local council